In a world turned upside down, a strange question arises. If we force children into behaving like adults, does the universe take a weird revenge by allowing us to be ruled by childish men? In more sense than one, the age is askew.
Those who should be responsible for nothing – the very young – bear the weight of responsibility; those who are in power have all the irresponsibility of spoiled adolescents. We used to talk of the developed world and the undeveloped world. Now, we live in the arrested development world.
The first part of this strange equation is embodied by teenagers such as Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg or the schoolkids in surgical masks we saw sitting down on junctions in Hong Kong last week.
It is patronising, of course, to be surprised that 15- or 16-year olds can be clear-minded and articulate and breathtakingly courageous.
These are teenagers who don’t want to burn out in a blaze of glory. They want not to burn on a blazing planet
Cliches about the political apathy of the young are rooted in the inability of the old to understand the nature of their political engagement. But we are seeing something quite specific to this moment.
Our children cannot afford to be children. If they live – as they have every right to live – in the bubble of youth, they may not survive long enough to see their own grandchildren.
This is a reversal of the youth revolt of the 1950s and 1960s, the “generation gap” between parents shaped by the second World War and children shaped by postwar prosperity.
That was a revolt into style – this is a revolt into survival. That cultural shift was epitomised in The Who’s prayer: “Hope I die before I get old.” This generation’s supplication is the opposite: Hope I get old before I die. Its fear is that of Edgar at the end of King Lear: “We that are young/ shall never live so long nor see so much.”
These are teenagers who don’t want to burn out in a blaze of glory. They want not to burn on a blazing planet. And this forces them to be older than their years, to think themselves into their forties and fifties and sixties and imagine what life will be like then.
This seems unnatural enough for one era to be going on with, but it is happening in parallel to the opposite development: the infantilisation of government.
While the teenagers have to act like grown-ups, high office is occupied by marauding manchildren. Perhaps, if you have a top-down democracy that treats “the people” like children, “the people” eventually take their revenge by placing big babies in office.
The phrase that Donald Trump’s enablers used about themselves – “the adults in the room” – implied of course that the president is an unruly kid. And the implication is, for once, accurate.
As Trump has rid himself one by one of those who tried to set boundaries for him, he has emerged even more scarily as a preadolescent Id, governed solely by his own impulses and blurting (via Twitter) whatever comes into his head: I want to buy Greenland and the prime minister of Denmark is being mean to me for not letting me do it and I’m not going to meet her, so there.
The real question is not why these radically immature men are the way they are but why democracies are being drawn into their infantile orbit
Last week, among the documents revealed in court challenges to Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue the Westminster parliament was a cabinet paper of August 16th in which he had written: “The whole September session is a rigmarole introduced by girly swot Cameron to show the public that MPs were earning their crust.”
Leave aside the sexism (equally expressed in Johnson’s jibe at Jeremy Corbyn: “big girl’s blouse”) and consider the age at which this man’s emotional development was arrested.
I used to think the problem with Johnson was that he had never grown up beyond his student days in the Oxford Union. But here he seems frozen at a much earlier age. If he were 14, the exasperated adults would snap: “For God’s sake, act your age!”
But acting one’s age seems to be more and more difficult at both sides of the spectrum – the kids have to be the adults in the room because the adults want to behave like bratty kids.
One could speculate about the causes of Trump’s or Johnson’s childishness, in Trump’s father’s habit of hiring models to pretend to be his son’s girlfriend, or in Johnson’s father’s philandering and his mother’s consequent breakdown. But the real question is not why these radically immature men are the way they are but why democracies are being drawn into their infantile orbit.
Perhaps it is merely that reactionary populism is at heart a denial of complexity. If you want to reduce politics to simplistic slogans and binary oppositions, it is best to have it conducted by those whose gamut of emotions runs all the way from A to B.
Our children, as a result, know what they have to do – to grow up fast. And it is what we have to learn to do from their example. Teenage kicks, in our time, are for the middle-aged and elderly men in high office whose only real thought is “burn, baby, burn”. The old babies will burn down the house unless we help the young adults stop them.